In reading this week’s articles I was reminded of a photography experiment that I had learned about in an art history course but couldn’t put my finger on until recently. The collection comes a bit later than the Victorian era, but all the same I find it to be a fascinating exercise in the early power of photography.
The series is called People of the 20th Century and was compiled by one German man, August Sander. It was intended to document every individual living in Germany under the Weimar republic. Although unfinished, more than 40,000 images were taken. Sander believed in a hierarchy of occupations and formatted his photographs into appropriate categories as he interpreted them. These categories are The Farmer, Classes and Professions, The Woman, The Artist, The City, and the Last People.
I find this work intriguing because it expanded photography to reach absolutely everyone. Not only was it available to them, but it sought them out. The people were photographed straight-on in their elements in static poses. In this way the individual is not obscured by action. The viewer is able to look at the image and see just this one person, understanding his or her place in the world.
Some photographs provided by Google (not all are actually his, of course. It is Google, after all):
Informative write-up for an exhibition at the Getty: